United States v. Preston
28 U.S. 57 (1830)

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U.S. Supreme Court

United States v. Preston, 28 U.S. 3 Pet. 57 57 (1830)

United States v. Preston

28 U.S. (3 Pet.) 57

Syllabus

The offense against the law of the United States, under the seventh section of the Act of Congress passed 2 March, 1807, entitled "An act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after 1 January, 1808" is not that of importing or bringing into the United States persons of color with intent to hold or sell such persons as slaves, but that of hovering on the coast of the United States with such intent, and although it forfeits the vessel and any goods or effects found onboard, it is silent as to disposing of the colored persons found on board, any further than to impose a duty upon the officers of armed vessels who make the capture to keep them safely, to be delivered to the overseers of the poor, or the governor of the state, or persons appointed by the respective states to receive the same.

The Josefa Segunda, having persons of color on board of her, was, on 11 February, 1818, found hovering on the coast of the United States, and was seized and brought into New Orleans, and the vessel and the persons on board were libeled in the District Court of the United States of Louisiana under the Act of Congress of 2 March, 1807. After the decree of condemnation below, but pending the appeal to this Court, the Sheriff of New Orleans went on, with the consent of all the parties to the proceedings, to sell the persons of color as slaves, and $65,000, the proceeds were deposited in the registry of the court to await the final disposal of the law.

By the tenth section of the act of 30 April, 1818, the six first sections of the act are repealed, and no provision is made by which the condition of the persons of color found on board a vessel hovering on the coast of the United States is altered from that in which they were placed under, the act of 1807, no power having been given to dispose of them otherwise than to appoint someone to receive them. The seventh section of the act of 1818, confirms no other sales previously or subsequently made under the state laws, but those for illegal importation, and does not comprise the case of a condemnation under the seventh section.

The final condemnation of the persons on board the Josefa Segunda took place in this Court on 13 March, 1820, after Congress had passed the Act of 3 March, 1819, entitled "An act in addition to an act prohibiting the slave trade," by the provisions of which persons of color brought in under any of the acts prohibiting traffic in slaves were to be delivered to the President of the United States to be sent to Africa. It could not affect them.

In admiralty cases, a decree is not final while an appeal from the same is depending in this Court, and any statute which governs the case must be an existing valid statute at the time of affirming the decree below. If, therefore, the persons of color who were on board the Josefa Segunda when captured had been specifically before the court on 13 March, 1820, they must have been delivered up to the President of the United States to be sent to Africa under the provisions of the Act of 3 March, 1819, and therefore there is no

Page 28 U. S. 58

claim to the proceeds of their sale under the law of Louisiana, which appropriated the same. The Court does not mean to intimate that the United States is entitled to the money, for it had no power to sell the persons of color.

The brig Josefa Segunda, a Spanish vessel, proceeding with a cargo of negroes from the coast of Africa to the Island of Cuba, was captured on 11 February, 1818, off St. Domingo by a regularly commissioned Venezuelan privateer, and on the 24th of the following April she was seized in the River Mississippi by custom house officers of the United States, carried to New Orleans, and there the vessel and negroes were libeled at the suit of the United States in the District Court of the United States for the Louisiana District.

The libel alleged that the negroes were unlawfully brought into the United States with an intent to dispose of them as slaves contrary to the provisions of the Act of Congress passed March 2, 1807, entitled an act to prohibit the importation of slaves, &c., 2 Story's Laws U.S. 1050. The libel was filed on 20 April, 1818, and a claim was put in by the Spanish owners alleging an unlawful capture of the brig; that the brig put into the Balize in distress, and without any intention to infringe or violate a law of the United States. The district court condemned the brig and effects found on board to the United States, and the claimants appealed to this Court.

At February term, 1820 of this Court, the sentence of the District Court of Louisiana was affirmed, the court having been of opinion that "the alleged unlawful importation could not be excused on the plea of distress" and that

"where a capture is made by a regularly commissioned captor, he acquires a title to the captured property which can only be divested by recapture or by the sentence of a competent tribunal, and the captured property is subject to capture for a violation by the captors of the revenue or other municipal laws of the neutral country into which the prize may be carried."

18 U. S. 5 Wheat. 338.

Page 28 U. S. 59

After the decree of the District Court of Louisiana had been pronounced and before the appeal to this Court, the negroes found on board of the captured brig were, under the provisions of the fourth section of the act of Congress and under the act of the State of Louisiana passed 13 March, 1818, delivered by the collector of the port of New Orleans to the Sheriff of the Parish of New Orleans, and they were by him sold for $68,000, and the proceeds lodged in the Bank of the United States subject to the order of the district court.

Upon the return of the cause to the District Court of Louisiana from this Court, Mr. Roberts, an inspector of the revenue and others who alleged that they had made "military seizures" subsequent to that of the officers of the customs filed claims to the moneys which were the proceeds of the sales of the brig and "effects," and of the negroes. Mr. Chew, the collector, conjointly with the naval officers, filed a like claim, and the court having dismissed the claims of Roberts and the asserted "military captors" and allowed those of the collector and other officers of the customs, the cause was again brought before this Court. 23 U. S. 10 Wheat. 312.

This Court, at February term, 1825, decided that

"The district court, under the slave trade acts, has jurisdiction to determine who are the actual captors under a state law made in pursuance of the fourth section of the slave trade act."

The Court also decided that

"under the seventh section of this Act of 2 March, 1807, ch. 77, the entire proceeds of the vessel are forfeited to the use of the United States unless the seizure be made by armed vessels of the navy or by revenue officers, in which case distribution is to be made in the same manner as prizes taken from the enemy."

The Court also decided

"That under the Act of the State of Louisiana of 13 March, 1828, passed to carry into effect the fourth section of the act of 1807 and directing the negroes imported contrary to the act to be sold and the proceeds to be paid"

"one moiety for the use of the commanding officer of the capturing vessel and the other moiety to the treasurer of the Charity Hospital of New Orleans for the use and benefit of the said hospital,"

"no other

Page 28 U. S. 60

person is entitled to the first moiety than the commanding officer of the navy or revenue cutter, who may have made the seizure under the seventh section of the act of Congress."

The case having returned again to the District Court of Louisiana, Mr. Preston, as attorney general of that state, filed a claim on behalf of that state setting forth the illegal importation of the negroes that the greater part of them had been delivered over to the Sheriff of New Orleans, that the sheriff had disposed of them under the law of the Legislature of Louisiana, that the proceeds of the sale, $68,000, were brought into the district court by the order of the court, and that part of the same remains deposited in court. He insisted that the money belongs to the state, and has been brought into court contrary to law and the rights of the state, and prays for an account and that the said money may be paid over to him so far as the same had not been disposed of conformably to the laws of Louisiana.

In the district court, this claim was opposed on behalf of the United States.

The decree of the court was in favor of the claim, and an appeal was taken by the district attorney of the United States to this Court.

Page 28 U. S. 64

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